Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 6 June 2019.
Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 25 April 2019)
Series: Swords and Fire – Book 3
Length: 508 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
One of the fast-rising authors of fantasy fiction, Melissa Caruso, brings her outstanding debut series to an end with the third book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, The Unbound Empire.
It is always a bittersweet moment when a great book series comes to an end. For the last two years, the Swords and Fire trilogy has been one of my favourite new fantasy series due to its excellent combination of characters, story, intrigue, fantasy elements and world building. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, The Tethered Mage, and I felt that Caruso did an excellent job following this up with The Defiant Heir, which made my Top Ten Reads For 2018 list and my Top Ten Books I Loved with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads list. As a result, I have been eagerly waiting for The Unbound Empire for the last year, and it even featured in my very first Waiting on Wednesday post.
The Swords and Fire series is set on the continent of Eruvia, which is made up of two great nations, the Serene Empire of Raverra and the loosely collected states of Vaskandar. The Serene Empire is the home of our protagonists, and is a land where magic is controlled by the government, led by the Doge and the Council of Nine. All mages who are identified as having enough power are conscripted into the army as a Falcon. Each Falcon is bound to a non-magical handler, a Falconer, who is entrusted to control and protect their Falcon. One such Falconer is Lady Amalia Cornaro, heir to one of the most powerful families in Raverra and future member of the Council of Nine. While the nobility is usually forbidden from becoming Falconers, desperate circumstances forced Amalia to be bound to the powerful and rebellious fire warlock Zaira.
Vaskandar, on the other hand, is a far wilder nation, ruled by the Witch Lords, magicians whose powerful vivomancy literally flows through their land, making them part of everyone and everything in their domain. War is always looming between these two nations, and while Vaskandar as a nation has decided to remain out of the most recent conflict, nothing can stop an individual Witch Lord from attacking. The cruel and ambitious Witch Lord Ruven, the Skinwitch, has long wanted to conquer and rule over The Serene Empire. His most recent ambitions have been stymied by the combined actions of Amalia and Zaira, who managed to stop his plan to unleash a destructive volcano, although it came at great cost to Amalia.
However, Ruven is far from done and is determined to gain new land, either in the Serene Empire or in the domains of the other Witch Lords. Launching a series of attacks against the Empire’s capital, Raverra, as well as several outlying holdings, with a range of horrifying strategies, Ruven is able to cause significant damage. But while he launches his attacks, he is also trying to recruit Amalia to his cause by any means necessary, as her unique heritage gives her the ability to usurp the domains of other Witch Lords. As Amalia and Zaira race to counter Ruven’s actions, Amalia finds herself once again torn between love, duty and friendship, as the responsibilities of her office clash with the friendships she has formed. As Amalia struggles to maintain her humanity in the heat of war, Ruven’s greatest cruelty might be the thing that finally breaks her and leads to the fall of the Serene Empire.
Caruso once again knocks it out of the park with The Unbound Empire, creating a satisfying conclusion to her series that still contains her trademark storytelling ability and character work. The final book in the Swords and Fire trilogy does a great job utilising the previous entries of the series and also attempts to tie up all of the existing loose storylines and plot points. The Unbound Empire is filled with some really emotional storylines, a number of powerful magical action sequences and several surprising plot developments. The end result is another five-star book from Caruso that I powered through in quite a short period.
At the heart of this book lies the series’ main two characters, the narrator and point-of-view character, Amalia, and the fire warlock Zaira. The challenging and evolving relationship between the initially sheltered Falconer and the rebellious and infinitely destructive Falcon has always been a major part of this series. While the two characters have been establishing a better relationship with each book, it was great to see the two of them becoming even closer in this book and helping each other deal with some major issues. I also liked how both characters’ stories come full circle in this book, as Amalia becomes more and more like her mother, while Zaira finally confronts a number of her personal demons and for once starts to consider having a future. The author’s depiction of the doubt and guilt that Amalia is feeling after the events of the last book forced her to kill her cousin added some extra emotional depth to the story, and I liked the inclusion of such a realistic emotional reaction. The character arcs for the two main characters were incredible, and it was great to see how much they had evolved over the course of the trilogy.
Caruso has also developed a number of great side characters for this series, and she continues to expertly utilise them in this final book. The main two side characters of The Unbound Empire were Amalia’s love interests: Captain Marcello of the Serene Empire; and the Witch Lord Kathe, known as the Crow Lord. Throughout the course of the book, Amalia is caught between them; while she loves Marcello, her position makes a relationship impossible, and Kathe presents a more suitable match. Marcello’s storyline in this book is pretty significant, and there are some substantial and emotive changes to his character that really helped make The Unbound Empire extra compelling. I also really liked the deeper dive into Kathe’s personality and backstory, as well as the natural strengthening of the relationship between Amalia and Kathe. Thankfully the book’s love triangle aspect wasn’t too over-the-top or filled with insufferable toxic jealousy, as both the men understand the difficult position Amalia is in. The arc of Zaira’s love interest, Terika, is really sweet, and I liked how she continues to have a positive effect of Zaira’s personality. Other side characters, such as the Amelia’s powerful and unflappable mother; the surprisingly lethal Cornaro servant, Ciardha; and Marcello’s eccentric artificer sister, Istrella, all shine through in this book, and all of them add quite a lot to this book’s story.
No great fantasy story would be complete without a despicable antagonist threatening the heroes, and luckily this book has a truly evil and threatening villain. The Witch Lord Ruven is a powerful Skinwitch, a person with the ability to control and alter other creatures just by touching him. Not only is this power by itself pretty horrifying but Ruven uses it in some fairly novel and evil ways, unleashing all manner of horrors upon the protagonists. I thought that Ruven had some of the best magical powers in the entire series, and his abilities were really fun to see in this book. Caruso also tried to humanise the character in places throughout this book, which was a nice touch and added some new depth to the story, although he does mostly come off as utterly irredeemable. Overall, I feel that Ruven was an excellent villain and his antagonism really helped make this book and the series as a whole.
I have always loved the complex fantasy world and elements that the author came up with for this series. The various forms of magic and resulting rules that form the backbone of this book are very imaginative, and I loved how Caruso was able to utilise them in her story. There are some amazing new versions of the magic and fantasy elements from the previous two books included in The Unbound Empire, as well as some new locations to explore. While the world building is not as intense as the first two books in the trilogy, Caruso still offers some great new elements, and I had a lot of fun seeing these extra expansions to the universe. Hopefully Caruso will come back to this world at some point in the future, as I had a lot of fun there over the course of the series.
The Unbound Empire was another incredible piece of fantasy fiction from author Melissa Caruso that expertly wraps up her debut trilogy. This has got to be one of the best debut fantasy trilogies I have had the pleasure of reading, and it has been a lot of fun absorbing the excellent tales of magic, adventure and intrigue that Caruso has woven over the last two years. I have really loved the Swords and Fire trilogy, and while I am sad to see it go, I am excited to see where Caruso goes next as this author has amazing potential for the future. I highly recommend each and every book in the series and encourage you to get wrapped up in the magic and characters of this series if you have not had a chance to read it.
The books have been coming in a little slow the last couple of weeks but I have gotten five outstanding novels that I am really looking forward to read.
I was lucky enough to get an advanced proof of The Emerald Tablet. After enjoying the first book in the series, The Honourable Thief, I am hoping to get to this one soon as well.
Another one that I have been looking forward to for a while. I have been a huge fan of the Vespasian series for a while, including the previous book in the series, Rome’s Sacred Flame, so I am really excited to see how the series ends.
Christian Cameron is one of the best authors of historical fiction in the world today. After enjoying his latest fantasy book that he wrote as Miles Cameron, I am quite excited to see him head back to ancient Greece.
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. This week’s challenge is to provide my top ten books that I loved with fewer than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads.
While in theory this sounds like an easy list to produce, I actually found that I had some real difficulty finding books with fewer than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads. Quite a few of my favourite books, series or comic books all had more than 2,000 Goodreads ratings, so I had to sadly exclude them. I was actually surprised at some of the books that had more than 2,000 ratings and I had to do quite a detailed search of my library and comic collection to come up with this list. In the end, I had to omit pretty much all my favourite fantasy and historical fiction series, as most of the books within them had been rated way more than 2,000 times. Still, I was able to come up with a very interesting top ten list that features a wide range of fantastic books I would definitely recommend.
Punisher Max, Vol. 1: In the Beginning by Garth Ennis and Lewis LaRosa – 1,652 ratings
Teen Titans, Vol. 2: Family Lost by Geoff Johns – 886 ratings
Green Arrow, Vol. 3: The Archer’s Quest by Brad Meltzer, Ande Parks and Phile Hiester – 1,933 ratings
The Green Arrow series that begin in 2001, following the resurrection of the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen, in Kevin Smith’s Quiver, has to be one of my favourite runs of Green Arrow. Not only did it feature some great storylines and some excellent characters both new and old but it also focused on a truly flawed DC superhero. Easily my favourite out of the stories featured in this series is the third volume, The Archer’s Quest, written by thriller and mystery writer Brad Meltzer. Meltzer has written several of my favourite DC comic books, including the incredible Identity Crisis (which unfortunately has over 18,000 ratings, or it would certainly be on this list). The Archer’s Quest is a fantastic story that sees Oliver attempting to come to terms with his resurrection by heading out on a road trip with his former sidekick, Roy Harper, in order to retrieve several items from his past that have deep emotional significance to him. What follows is a touching journey that sees the original Green Arrow interact with a number of characters from his past while also offering the reader several major character revelations. This is a classic Green Arrow tale that all fans of the character need to check out, and I am very glad it squeaks in at just below 2,000 ratings.
Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 2: Samurai by Stan Sakai – 1,410 ratings
I have mentioned on my blog before how much I love Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series, and quite frankly I would award all 32 volumes five stars. However, the second volume of this series, Samurai, stands out as one of the best early volumes in this series, which sets out much of the protagonist’s backstory and establishes a number of future storylines and characters. It is also when Sakai hits his stride artistically with his character and environment, incorporating the designs that would be a fantastic hallmark of his future volumes. This is essential reading for those fans of this rabbit samurai, and a fantastic starting point for those interested in checking out the series.
Another outstanding debut from 2018, City of Lies was one of the best fantasy books I read last year. After the much-deserved hype it has received online I was surprised that it only had 870 ratings. With its iconic poison-based storyline, this was an incredible book that successfully introduces a fantasy series with a lot of potential.
The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby – 749 ratings
The Pericles Commission is the first book in the Athenian Mysteries series (also known as the Hellenic Mysteries series) by Australian author Gary Corby, which has to be one of my favourite historical crime series of all times. Released in 2010, The Pericles Commission is the best book in this series and it also served as an excellent introduction into this fun series. The Pericles Commission is a fantastic blend of historical fiction and murder mystery that also contains a huge amount of humour, mostly achieved through a series of modern actions that feel out of place in historical Athens. This is an outstanding book that I had a lot of fun reading and reviewing in The Canberra Times. I still chuckle at the fantastic court scene that Corby wrote near the end of the story.
This is the second book in one of my favourite new fantasy series, the Swords and Fire series. I found this second book to be an excellent addition to this fantastic series, which expands on the interesting new universe while also offering some incredible character development.
I have mentioned Deep Silence several times in the last few months, including on my Top Ten Reads of 2018 list. It is still one of the best new audiobooks of last year and is also the book that introduced me to the outstanding Joe Ledger series, which is one of my favourite series that I am reading at the moment. As the other two books in the Joe Ledger series that I have read, Patient Zero and The Dragon Factory, both have more than 2,000 ratings, Deep Silence was an easy inclusion for this list.
Planetside is one of my favourite debuts of 2018 and I am very happy to be able to feature it in this list. Mammay crafts an amazing story that blends together a great science fiction narrative with a first-rate investigate thriller storyline. Featuring one of the best story endings of the year, this is a book well worth checking out.
Teen Titans, Vol. 5: Life and Death by Geoff Johns – 624 ratings
Geoff Johns’s extended run on the 2003 series of Teen Titans was one of the first comic series I really got into and it remains as one of my favourite comic book series of all time. During this series, Johns completely re-imagined the classic superhero team of the Teen Titans by incorporating standout characters from the Young Justice series and teaming them up with an older generation of classic Titans for some incredible adventures. I had to include at least one volume of this series in this list, but this was the one I struggled with the most. With the first volume having too many ratings on Goodreads, I had to choose between Volumes 2, 4 and 5. While Volume 2: Family Lost, features an outstanding re-introduction of iconic DC character Raven, and Volume 4: The Future is Now, contains several amazing storylines, including a grim look into the future and a massive brawl between all the previous Teen Titans and Dr Light, I had to choose Volume 5: Life and Death in the end. Life and Death is a bit of a companion piece to DC’s massive Infinite Crisis crossover event and features an extended look at several storylines that make up the main Infinite Crisis story. While I enjoyed all the storylines featured within this volume, I am mainly choosing it because of the tragic fate of Superboy, who, after finally admitting his love to Wonder Girl, sacrifices himself to save the world. As it features one of my top comic book moments of all times, this volume of Teen Titans is a welcome addition to this list.
Without a doubt, Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia series is one of the best historical crime series running at the moment, and I am a huge fan of this amazing crimes series set deep within ancient Rome. While I have quite enjoyed all of the books in the series, my favourite has to be the sixth book, Pandora’s Boy. Pandora’s Boy featured an intriguing mystery that fully utilises the book’s classic Roman setting while also creating some extremely humorous moments.
I have been loving this Star Wars comic series over the last year, as Charles Soule and his creative team have been doing a superb job of reminding everyone why Darth Vader is one of modern fictions biggest badasses. The third volume, The Burning Seas, was my favourite volume of this series, and featured some exceptional storylines and marvellous artwork. A fantastic comic to round out this list, this volume is a perfect read for all Star Wars fans.
2018 has been one hell of a year for fiction, with a ton of great novels and comics from a variety of genres. Throughout this year I have had the pleasure of reading a huge number of outstanding novels and now I have the hard task of deciding what my favourite books of the year were. So below, in no particular order, are the books I believe were the best of 2018:
This is one I only just reviewed a few days ago, but it is easily one of the most incredible books of 2018. Legendary science fiction and fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has created another captivating read set in one of his trademark intricate new worlds. Skyward was pretty much the best piece of young adult fiction that I read this year, and I cannot speak highly enough of the high-speed dogfights between human pilots and alien fighters.
Another book that I only just recently read, but I found it to be one of the best historical murder mysteries of the year. Readers who get into this latest book in the Matthew Shardlake series will find a novel filled with an incredible amount of historical detail, a focus on an underutilised event from history and a deeply intriguing mystery. All of these come together into a massively compelling narrative that proves pretty damn hard to put down for any substantial length of time.
The 10th book in Maberry’s fantastically over-the-top Joe Ledger series, Deep Silence contains a wonderful mixture of weird science, thrilling espionage and some crazy science fiction elements. All of these are pretty darn entertaining by themselves, but together they form a really fun novel that I really enjoyed, and which got me really hooked on Maberry as an author. Deep Silence also had to be my favourite new audiobook of 2018, and I loved the expert and humorous narration by the amazing Ray Porter.
The science fiction debut of 2018 that came out of nowhere, Planetside was an incredible thriller set on and above an alien planet. Featuring a pretty cool mystery with some amazing twists, as well as an epic and memorable conclusion to the entire story, this was an absolutely fantastic read. Another one with a pretty amazing audiobook, this was an awesome debut and I am already looking forward to the second book in the series.
Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith has to be one of my favourite ongoing comic book series out at the moment. While this third volume of the series is not the only one that came out this year, it was definitely my favourite, with a range of awesome storylines that continue to set up Vader as one of the biggest villains in all of fiction. With some incredible action, some great additions to the Star Wars lore and some intriguing references to the movies, this volume had a little something for everybody and is well worth checking out.
The follow-up to Eames’s wildly successful 2017 debut, Kings of the Wyld, this is an extremely fun and highly action packed fantasy adventure. Featuring a fantastic band of fantasy characters as they tramp across the landscape in a journey reminiscent of a rock group tour, this book lives up to its substantial hype and is one of the most straight-up entertaining reads of 2018.
From fellow Canberran Sam Hawke comes this outstanding piece of fantasy intrigue in what was probably one of the best fantasy debuts of 2018. Featuring an incredible poison based storyline, this was an amazingly compelling read that contained a number of outstanding mysteries and conspiracies, as well as setting up a new fantasy world for a great new fantasy series.
Debuting science fiction writer Christopher Ruochhio came out of the gate swinging this year with this epic space opera. Featuring a massive new universe in the future and focusing on the adventures of the man destined to kill a sun, Empire of Silence is a really impressive first outing from this author and an excellent introduction to a bold new science fiction series with a lot of potential.
The follow-up to one of my favourite debuts of 2017, The Tethered Mage, Caruso continues the adventure of her two mismatched companions in this fast-moving sequel that contains all the elements I loved about the first book. Caruso doubles down on the insane magical action and presents a new range of intriguing fantasy adversaries. An epic second book and a fantastic magical adventure.
This was another awesome debut for 2018 as author Stuart Turton comes up with an outrageous original concept and uses it to create one of the year’s best mysteries. Essentially a combination of Groundhog Day, Inception, Downton Abbey and one of the old classic murder mystery series, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle was an extremely clever read that proved very hard to put down.
I’ve really enjoyed the Waiting on Wednesday feature that several other book blogs provide, so I decided to give it a try. Waiting on Wednesday features books that I am hoping to get and review in the future. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books the moment I get them.
For my first Waiting on Wednesday, one of the main books I am hoping get in 2019 is The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso. The Unbound Empire is the third book in the Swords and Fire series and will be released in April 2019. I have really enjoyed the previous two books in the series, The Tethered Mage and The Defiant Heir, which were some of the best fantasy books in the last two years. With a fun combination of humour, intense fantasy adventure, enjoyable characters and excellent world building, I have awarded both of these books five-star reviews when I read them.
Definitely one to watch out for in 2019, I am expecting great things from The Unbound Empire.
Melissa Caruso follows up her extraordinary debut with another unmissable magical adventure.
On the continent of Eruvia lies the Serene Empire of Raverra. Ruled by the Doge and the Council of Nine, the Empire’s power comes from its mages, the legendary Falcon Army. When a mage comes to power in the lands of Raverra, they are conscripted as a Falcon and bound to a Falconer, a non-mage who can choose to unleash or bind their Falcon’s power with a word.
However, the Serene Empire is not the only great power on Eruvia. To the north lies the mysterious nation of Vaskandar, controlled by a dangerous group of mages known as the Witch Lords. Each Witch Lord is a powerful vivomancer whose magic grants them control over all living beings, such as animals, plants and even humans. After years of peace, several of the Witch Lords desire additional territory and are preparing for war against the Serene Empire. Large forces of soldiers and the Vaskandar’s dreaded chimeras amass on the border while covert attacks are undertaken against the Serene Empire’s most powerful Falcons. But before the Vaskandar can formally declare war, all seventeen Witch Lords must meet in a conclave to agree to a course of action.
Lady Amalia Cornaro is heir to one of the oldest and most powerful families in all of the Serene Empire. Formerly a sheltered academic, her life dramatically changed when she was accidently bonded to the rebellious teenage runway Zaira, a rare and destructive fire warlock and the most powerful mage in the Empire. Despite a turbulent and resentful start to their relationship, Amalia and Zaira have come to a mutual understanding following their adventures in the city of Ardence.
As the tension between the two nations increases, Amalia and Zaira are sent as a military deterrent to the border province of Callamourne, ruled by Amalia’s grandmother. Despite their presence, it quickly becomes apparent that forces are conspiring to bring the war to pass, especially with spies and assassins targeting Amalia and Zaira directly. Determined to maintain the peace, Amalia knows that the only way to prevent the war is to infiltrate Vaskandar and attend the conclave on behalf of the Serene Empire.
Entering Vaskandar is a dangerous proposition. Each Witch Lord has their own territory which they rule absolutely thanks to a mysterious bond to the land that allows them to control all living creatures within their boundaries. In addition, Amalia already has powerful enemies among the Witch Lords. The deadly Lady of Thorns holds a grudge against her entire family, and Amalia and Zaiara have experience with the machinations of the Skinwitch Ruven, whose plot could cause great destruction.
Their only hope to influence the conclave may come from the mysterious Crow Lord, who has taken an interest in Amalia. However, the Crow Lord is playing his own game, and Amalia and Zaira are the perfect pawns.
Melissa Caruso is a relatively new fantasy author whose first book in the Swords and Fire series, The Tethered Mage, was released in late 2017. The Defiant Heir is a direct sequel to this, and is set a few months after.
The Tethered Mage was one of the surprising hits of last year. What started out as an intriguing sounding fantasy novel turned into one of the most exciting and memorable debuts of 2017 and proved near impossible to put down. Caruso maintains this trend of excellent writing in The Defiant Heir, which continues to the provide the same great characters, fantasy adventure, worldbuilding and amazing story writing that made her first book such an irresistible read.
Caruso has chosen to expand her fantasy world in The Defiant Heir by detailing the nation of Vaskandar and focusing on its rulers, the Witch Lords. While Vaskandar was mentioned and one of nation’s vivomancers, Prince Ruven, was a secondary antagonist, this area of her world wasn’t really explored in the first book. For this book, Vaskandar is a major location and the protagonists spend a large portion of the story within its boundaries. As a result, Caruso has produced a significant amount of fascinating lore about this country, especially when it comes to the Witch Lords. The focus on the Witch Lords is particularly interesting as Caruso has developed complex backstories, powers, plots and motivations for many of them, which adds immensely to the story. In addition, despite the fact that they all study the same branch of the magic, each of the Witch Lords has their own speciality and their appearance and abilities are different as a result. This is especially noticeable during the numerous magical duels that occur throughout the book, where these differences allow for a wider variety of magical action. It is also quite fun when the various Witch Lords use their powers to show off with memorable entrances and appearances during the opening scenes of the conclave.
Readers should also keep an eye out for Caruso’s focus on character development within The Defiant Heir for the two main characters. Amalia’s growth is the most significant, as circumstances force her to become a more savvy and decisive political player, very much like her mother. As a result, she is forced to make a number of tough decisions and struggles to maintain her morality in a harsh world where her options are becoming more and more limited. There is also the growing realisation that her position may not allow her to have the personal life she wants, and this greatly affects her relationship with the dashing Captain Marcello, the main love interest of the first book. This is a well done bit of character development that will draw the reader in emotionally, especially when it comes to Amalia’s most significant decision in the book.
Zaira’s development is more subtle, as she is not the book’s narrator, and is mostly a continuation of the transformation from inverted loner to team player that started in The Tethered Mage. However, it is more realistic to see that this growth is a slow process, and her stubbornness is not automatically fixed in the span of one book. The same could be said about the satisfying but gradual development in the relationship between the main characters.
Melissa Caruso once again shows why she is one of the brightest new stars in the fantasy fiction. The Defiant Heir is an outstanding continuation of her first series that introduces significant and exiting lore to her already intriguing universe while providing significant development to her main characters. If you haven’t already discovered the magic of Caruso’s Swords and Fire series, you are in for a serious treat.